How not to cope with failure

‘A failure is a man who has blundered, but is not able to cash in the experience.’
– Elbert Hubbard

We’ve all heard about the lessons you learn from failures. Most of us have failed, some of us on numerous occasions. The problem is not whether we fail or not. It’s our coping strategy for failure. And some of us fail at that too. Here’s how:

Taking it too personally
– some people get really down when they fail. They take it to heart, and gnaw on the experience, picking away at their insecurities. This just compounds the initial problem (the fact the project has failed) by reducing the team’s ability to recover. In fact, ‘losing your mojo’ can be worse than the initial failure. There’s a kind of selfishness about wallowing in this emotion. Perhaps there’s even a sordid enjoyment in it, as if it absolves other responsibilities – ‘I can’t cope with that, because I’m dealing with this.’ If you start to feel yourself slide, pull up immediately. It can drag others down too and start a negative vibe which is hard to dislodge.

Taking it too lightly
– the converse is that the failures happen but no lessons are learned. This is normally due to post-rationalization – we didn’t want to win that client anyway, or the idea wouldn’t have made that much of a difference in the first place. These are stories we tell ourselves to make us feel better. It’s good to move on, but the stories mustn’t be so misleading as to hide the truth. The project failed because of x, y, z and we need to recognize that, not explain it away.

Fear of trying
– if you try hard to achieve a goal and fail, it hurts. So the coping strategy of some is not to try hard in the first place. Then you’re not exposed. If you don’t put a piece of yourself into the project, you don’t have anything at stake and are protected if it goes south. Again, the stories we can tell ourselves are that had we given it our full attention, it would have gone better, but instead we had these other priorities at the time. The challenge here is that this behavior can become addictive – there are no tasks which warrant the full force of our considerable talents. We stay inside our comfort zone of 80%, risking nothing.

Blaming others – because it’s always someone else’s fault, right? Yeah, right.

Failure is integral to our lives. We will all experience setbacks. Some will be our fault, others deeply unfair and unexplainable. How we cope with them defines our ultimate success. Failing to cope with failure is the ultimate failure.